As the days get shorter, many people find themselves feeling sad. You might feel blue around the winter holidays, or get into a slump after the fun and festivities have ended. Some people have more serious mood changes year after year, lasting throughout the fall and winter when there’s less natural sunlight. What is it about the darkening days that can leave us down in the dumps? And what can we do about it?
Scientists have been studying the winter blues and a more severe type of depression called seasonal affective disorder, or SAD. They’ve learned about possible causes and found treatments that seem to help most people. Still, much remains unknown about these winter-related shifts in mood.
As with other forms of depression, SAD can lead to a gloomy outlook and make people feel hopeless, worthless and irritable. They may lose interest in activities they used to enjoy, such as hobbies and spending time with friends.
What Triggers SAD?
Shorter days seem to be a main trigger for SAD. Reduced sunlight in fall and winter can disrupt your body’s internal clock, or circadian rhythm. This 24-hour master clock responds to cues in your surroundings, especially light and darkness. During the day, your brain sends signals to other parts of the body to help keep you awake and ready for action. At night, a tiny gland in the brain produces a chemical called melatonin, which helps you sleep. Shortened daylight hours in winter can alter this natural rhythm and lead to SAD in certain people.
How Can SAD be Treated?
Scientists have pioneered the use of light therapy, which has since become a standard treatment for SAD. In light therapy, patients generally sit in front of a light box every morning for 30 minutes or more, depending on the doctor’s recommendation. The box shines light much brighter than ordinary indoor lighting. Studies have shown that light therapy relieves SAD symptoms for as much as 70% of patients after a few weeks of treatment. Some improvement can be detected even sooner.
Growing evidence suggests that cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)—a type of talk therapy—can also help patients who have SAD. The behavioral part of CBT tries to teach people new behaviors to engage in when they’re feeling depressed, to help them feel better.
If you’re feeling blue this winter, and if the feelings last for several weeks, talk to a health care provider. It’s true that SAD goes away on its own, but that could take five months or more. Five months of every year is a long time to be impaired and suffering. SAD is generally quite treatable, and the treatment options keep increasing and improving.
“Now that I’m a parent, I understand why my father was in a bad mood a lot.”